Arrests Over Voting Escalate a “Culture of Fear” in Florida
Governor Ron DeSantis’s recent targeting of some voters with felony convictions builds on a long history of voter intimidation in Florida that has disproportionately impacted Black citizens.
Justin Garcia | October 27, 2022
In August, when Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced charges against 20 people who he claimed had committed voter fraud, Rodney Johnson took notice.
The 51-year-old has a felony on his record, like all of the people DeSantis had arrested. He wondered if the governor would come after him next, because he had just voted in the August primary.
Johnson was convicted of drug trafficking and released in 2002 after serving 22 months in prison. For years after his release, he was barred from voting due to Florida’s draconian rules. In 2018, voters passed Amendment 4, a landmark ballot initiative that overrode the 19th century policy barring anyone with a felony conviction from voting for life. Amendment 4 allowed people convicted of most felonies to vote once they complete their sentence.
Johnson’s first time voting was in 2020 and he’s been engaged with electoral politics ever since.
But a series of arrests this year have rocked the reform’s promise. Earlier this year, county prosecutors charged people for voting despite owing court debt, due to a law signed by DeSantis in 2019 that rolled back Amendment 4 by imposing financial payments. The people who were then charged in August had been convicted of murder and sexual assault, offenses carved out by Amendment 4. But several said that they thought the amendment allowed them to legally vote, especially because they had been provided with voter IDs by local election officials—with the approval of the DeSantis administration.
Now, leading up to the November 8 general election, Johnson is wondering what legal stunt DeSantis might pull next.
“It makes you think twice before going to vote,” he said.
A new report by the Sentencing Project estimates that over 1.1 million Floridians are barred from voting this fall due to a past felony conviction in Florida. Others may have regained their right to vote but shy away from the polls over the uncertainty caused by the recent events. And given the vast racial disparities in Florida’s criminal legal system, the predicament disproportionately affects African Americans.
More than one in five Black adults in the state were disenfranchised in 2016. Amendment 4 cut down that number, but 13 percent of Black adults are still barred from voting in the state, which compares to 7 percent of the rest of state’s population.
Of the 19 people whose August arrests for voter fraud were reviewed by The Palm Beach Post, 15 are Black.
“DeSantis’ arrests have built upon a culture of fear that already existed around voting, but he has added new consequences, especially for Black people in particular,” said Kevin Anderson, a defense attorney who represents Leo Grant Jr., one of the people who were arrested in August.
Backed by law enforcement from his Election Crimes and Security Office at a press conference on Aug.18, DeSantis said the voters had committed fraud, which would require that they had knowingly and willfully violated the law so they could cast their votes.
“The state of Florida has charged and is in the process of arresting 20 individuals across the state for voter fraud,” DeSantis said to a round of cheering and applause. “They did not go through any process. They did not get their rights restored, and yet they went ahead and voted anyways. That is against the law, and now they’re going to pay the price for it.”
At another press conference 12 days later, DeSantis then put the blame on local voting jurisdictions. “Some local jurisdictions don’t care about election laws. We do, and we think it’s important. If you’re not able to run an election right, we want to hold people accountable,” DeSantis said.
But DeSantis’ claims have since come under scrutiny. He failed to mention during his press conferences that government officials had told the people who were arrested that they were allowed to vote. And DeSantis’ own election investigation chief had sent an email to local jurisdictions telling them that they did nothing wrong when the returning citizens voted in August.
Last week, one of the arrests was thrown out by a South Florida judge, who said that the state did not have jurisdiction to charge Robert Lee Wood. The DeSantis administration said that it intends to appeal that decision.
“The DeSantis story about the arrests after the primary has already started to fall apart, but who knows what he’s capable of next,” Johnson said.
DeSantis created a new police force to investigate election crimes in April, spending an estimated $3.7 million in startup costs. It employs agents tasked with investigating election-related crimes, which are very uncommon in Florida.
The DeSantis administration has not responded to multiple requests for comment on this story.
Some of those who were arrested have come forward to explain that they thought their rights had been restored when Amendment 4 passed, and that the state had given them every indication that they were eligible to vote.
Leo Grant Jr. had thought he was just fulfilling his civic duty, until law enforcement arrived at his door in August. His defense attorney, Anderson, says that the DeSantis administration used people’s lives to advance his political agenda and create an environment for rumors to spread in Florida about rampant voter fraud.
“This process was weaponized to make it appear that you have all of these people out in the community casting votes that they ought not cast, when really what has happened is that they’ve been lured,” Anderson said. “So it’s like a game that’s being played with their lives.”
Anderson—who has 20 years of experience and has handled hundreds of state and federal criminal and police liability cases—said that DeSantis has created “an environment of intimidation,” which will affect potential voters who may now be worried about going to cast their vote after the arrests.
“Intimidation is one tactic that has been used in the past against Black people for voting, and it is being used now,” he said.
Fear tactics have been wielded to mute Black people’s voices and suppress their votes throughout American history. The Ku Klux Klan did this, often through violence, in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This year, in Florida and in other states, intimidation and election-related threats of violence have made securing polling locations more difficult leading up to elections.
But legislation has also functioned as a means of voter suppression. Prior to Amendment 4 being passed, Florida’s constitution had disenfranchised all citizens who had been convicted of any felony offense dating back to Florida’s first constitution in 1838. It said, “all persons convicted of bribery, perjury, forgery, or other high crime, or misdemeanor” should be barred from voting. This was amended in 1868 to remove the language about misdemeanors. In 1968, the language was amended again, to name felonies as the specific reason that people should not be able to vote.
In an analysis of Florida’s disenfranchisement rules in 2015, Allison Riggs wrote in The Journal of Civil Rights and Economic Development about the “enormous burden that these rules place on people of color seeking to participate in the political process.” Even after passage of Amendment 4 in 2018, many Floridians are barred from voting, including if they are in prison, on probation, and on parole—outcomes that are far likelier to affect Black Floridians.
Shortly after Amendment 4 was adopted, DeSantis signed Senate Bill 7066 into law, which prohibited returning citizens from voting unless they paid off legal fines and fees imposed by a court pursuant to a felony conviction.
This caused anger and confusion among those who had struggled for the right to vote, and civil rights groups filed a lawsuit accusing the governor of creating a “pay-to-vote” system. The chaos created by this rule, in addition to the more recent voter arrests, led several civil rights groups to create a legal guide for returning citizens who wish to vote.
This month, body camera footage of one of the arrests was published by The Tampa Bay Times. It showed Tony Patterson, another of the voters charged, in a state of shock that he was being arrested.
“What is wrong with this state, man?” Patterson asked the police as they arrested him. “Voter fraud? Y’all said anybody with a felony could vote, man.”
This isn’t DeSantis’ first attempt at influencing voting procedures in Florida with an aim of impacting outcomes. Earlier this year, his administration pushed a redistricting plan before the legislature, which a Florida circuit court judge found to be unconstitutional for its attempt to dilute the Black vote. The legislature approved the plan, and now the DeSantis administration is refusing to release documents related to its creation, after the League of Women Voters and individual voters filed a lawsuit against the redistricting in April.
Neither has DeSantis shied away from overruling the will of voters once they’ve already spoken. In August he removed a democratically-elected state attorney from office based on the prosecutor’s statements that he would not charge cases dealing with abortion or anti-transgender legislation, and claims to have “reviewed” several more. It’s created uncertainty among candidates that they could be plucked from their positions even after winning.
“In the end, he just wants to win,” said Robin Lockett, regional director of the non-profit activist group Florida Rising. “He’ll use any tactic he can, no matter how undemocratic, to try to get his way.”
Lockett works to register voters in Florida, along with fighting for racial and social justice causes. She doesn’t have a felony conviction, but talks to people who do regularly through her work. She says that DeSantis has reached a new level of electoral desperation.
“You don’t see him out there arresting people who are most likely going to vote for him,” Lockett said. “He’s targeting people who he wants to suppress. He wants returning citizens, and especially Black people, to go back to the shed, to go underground.”
Rodney Johnson says that even though DeSantis’s actions make him think twice about voting, he’ll still be heading to the ballot box in November.
“When you make the effort to turn your life around, you want to be able to have your voice heard, just like any other citizen.”
He won’t let a political agenda based in fear stop him from moving forward, he says, although he’s unsure if that will be the case with everyone who has been convicted of a felony.
“A lot of us have been through so much here in Florida, rents are going up and we’re just trying to survive,” Rodney said. “People have kids and families to think about. There are plenty of voters who might not take the risk, in case DeSantis decides to pull something shady again. But I have to do what I know is right.”